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May 1972

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Lillian



The other day I came plodding through the rubble on Sixth Avenue, a colorful sordid concrete gash that splits the underbelly of Manhattan like the Yangtze River carves up China, wading through beer cans, c cigar butts and split-open bags of garbage to the corner of 14th Street. Ah, Sixth and 14th, the crossroads of Hades, where vice meets chicanery, where avarice meets greed, where George Plimpton and Gloria Steinem never tread. The light for me was red and the big neon sign flickered DON'T WALK. Being basically part of that now tiny minority who believes that when the sign says DON'T WALK, you don't, I clumped to a halt. I love to walk in Manhattan. I have never once been bored, although I'll admit I have felt many other emotions. At times stark fear has gripped my vitals, sometimes total amazement at yet another bizarre revelation. Occasionally complete mystification at some passing enigma, but never, I repeat never, boredom. Anyway, I'm standing there on the curb next to a short, stout creature of aggressively indeterminate sex, clad entirely in black leather cut to a medieval pattern, complete with gauntlets, breast-plate and coat of arms, when a monster Cummins cab-over diesel tractor roared up to the corner and stopped for the light. It towered like some fearful beautiful engine of war over the scurrying throng; its chrome gleamed balefully; the vast expanse of windshield glistened with a green light like the eye of Cyclops. It was a hell of a machine. I could feel 14th Street quiver under the rolling beat of its idling, lethal diesel power plant, a kind of taut, deep-bellied thrumming. Across its cowl, in flowing romantic script, was the name Cynthia. The driver, his elbow casually draped out the window, was puffing away on a yellowed, burnt-out Missouri meerschaum. He wore a fake Miami Dolphins blue, orange and white football jersey. He fitted the cab of that Cummins the way Joe Namath's hand fits a football. They belonged together. A faint silver-gray cloud of Prince Albert smoke drifted out of the cab to join the noisy 14th Street air. I couldn't help it. There was something about the way he lounged in that cab, the way that big mean tractor squatted there. I had to make contact. I hollered up at him amid the din. "That's a hell of a tractor you got there!" He peered down from King Kong's forehead and gave me a long, squinting hard look. I guess I passed. "Thanks, Buddy," he yelled over the muttering diesel. "How come 'Cynthia'?" I hollered back. "That's 'er name," he answered with perfect logic. "A hell of a great looking truck," I shouted while my fellow Manhattanites, including the bird in the leather armor, looked at me as though I had sprouted poison oak leaves from my nostrils. "Yeah," he answered, "she is great. But she can sure be a bitch." The light changed and Cynthia bellowed with a thunder that drowned out even the IRT below our feet and roared off in the direction of Cheyenne or Albuquerque. Automatically my feet began to move in the distinctive Manhattan shuffle, which takes years for a newcomer to learn. It is kind of a single-minded porcine waddle, head thrust forward and pulled down deep into the shoulder blades, knees bent, body at a distinct forward angle to better ward off unexpected blows or crippling buffets. I swung into the Chock full o'Nuts for my afternoon chocolate brownie, and while I waited, perched on those tiny, ass-punishing stools which are deliberately designed to drive you off of them in pain after a maximum of sixteen minutes in order to keep the traffic moving and the cash register ringing, I thought back on Cynthia and her partner. Yep, I thought, I'll bet Cynthia can be a hell of a bitch at times, but then every Cynthia can be touch and go. The girl slapped my brownie down in front of me with a surly flip of her wrist. "Coffee," I barked. "Black." She curled her lip in disgust in the classic Manhattan manner. "Here y'are." She banged the cup down in front of me with an adept, practiced sloshing movement which neatly slopped the scalding coffee over my thumb and into the guts of my very nervous wristwatch. "That'll be fifteen cents more," she muttered with the infinitely-bored, non-contact voice of the human automaton who sees nothing, hears nothing, and gives out even less. She waited while I fished out the change. She left to harass another customer. I sipped the Chock full o'Nuts coffee, which in spite of everything is still great, and thought on about Cynthia, which naturally led me to another machine I had known: Lillian. My god, Lillian, I thought. I haven't thought about her for years. Every guy who has ever spent a good part of his life behind a steering wheel knows that after man and machine have spent enough time together, in good weather and foul, over pothole and rutted gravel, each begins to soak up so me of the character of the other until finally the man is forever changed, however subtly, by his association with that particular machine, and the machine, like a worn shoe, has bent and molded its way of being to fit his. Any time you buy a used car you can sense a stranger riding with you, complaining, hawking and spitting and smoking things you wouldn't touch in a thousand years. I don't know who got to Lillian before I came across her, but she must have had a hell of a life. It was during a bad stretch I was going through. School was getting boring. No money. And I had a bad case of the Total Itch. So I scratched around and picked Lillian off a used car lot in South Chicago. A '51 Hudson Hornet that looked like somebody's kid brother had repainted it on a Saturday afternoon using Woolworth Black Gloss Enamel, the kind that goes on in little lumps, and a brush to match which distributed its hairs along with the paint. It was cheap, which was more important than the crummy paint. Every week I began booming up the length of Indiana, up 41 to see a girl I had a thing for. Looking back on it, I can't see why-she was even meaner than Lillian and her paint job wasn't so good either. Still, I put maybe 500 miles on Lillian every weekend in pursuit of this chick-two hundred and fifty up and two hundred and fifty back, not counting all the screwing around to the drive-ins and stuff in between. At first Lillian was a total stranger, like all alien used cars are. I'd find strange hairpins and sinister bottle caps under the seats. The last guy who'd had her was some kind of a Wine Freak or something, because she always smelled of that 69 a quart Mexican tokay. Sometimes on those long hauls I'd get to wondering what he was doing and whether one day we'd have to fight it out in some parking lot if he caught me and Lillian, the way guys fight over girls that they don't care for anymore. All that summer me and Lillian hauled ass up to Chicago and then back, through heat and rain, through lightning and June bugs. We had plenty of close calls, like one time south of Indianapolis at four in the morning some damn farmer cut right out of a cornfield, out of a gravel road, with an unlighted Chevy pickup and I to this day don't know how the hell I missed him. At 90 mph in a Hudson Hornet things happen fast. All I remember is a scared white dumb face going by me so fast it was blurred, with the Hornet leaning over on two wheels and my baldies screaming. We had a couple of others that summer that left their mark too. Like the one outside of West Lafayette when the tractor trailer up ahead in the rain suddenly jack-knifed, and me and Lillian slid sideways for what seemed like two miles and finally came to rest a couple of feet from that damn truck with our front wheels in a culvert. As Fall came on and it started getting colder, Lillian began to change. By now I was pouring enough oil in her to fuel a GMC diesel, and forget the gas. It was on a cold late Fall night, with a little snow in the air, at about three in the morning that I began to notice a new sound. Me and Lillian had come so close together now that I knew every fugitive squeak and every piston slap with total intimacy, the way you get to know a girl's voice after you've lived with her so long you don't even have to hear it any more, you just know it. 'Way down deep in her guts, somewhere below the floorboards, her transmission began muttering. Just muttering at first, a kind of under-the-breath bitching, the way old men do sitting in all-night bus stations, just growling now and then. All the while old Lillian was banging along, laying down her characteristic cloud of blue-black smoke on 41. We went along maybe forty more miles and I began to notice the growling was picking up, the muttering was more distinct and delicate-like. I turned down the Philco radio that had a little Hudson triangle trademark on the middle of the dial to listen to that mean growl. I bent my head over a little to get my ear nearer the floorboards. Like every other machine I've ever known, as soon as I listened for the growl, it stopped. Well, I figured, I'll let her think I don't notice it. This is always a good strategy, but it doesn't always work. We proceeded on into the night with our total clattering smoke-breathing harmony. Then she started up again. I hummed to myself to throw her off balance, to make her think I wasn't listening and turned up my ears. Sure enough, the growling picked up. It was then that I recognized what Lillian was saying, over and over. That beat-up Hudson transmission was distinctly saying, with a rasping, growling voice: god damn you god damn you god damn you god damn you god damn you, just over and over and over again. There was no doubt about it.That's what that bitch was saying. God damn you god damn you god damn you god damn you god damn you. That night everything changed. For the first time I saw that babe in Chicago for what she was. We had a ding-dong fight in a bar on the North Side that ended with her yelling, "God damn you, I don't never want to see you again!" I paid the check, went out and got in Lillian, who smelled of that crummy tokay as usual, headed her south, and then she started up: god damn you god damn you god damn you, over and over. For the full two hundred and fifty miles. I got rid of her the next week. Sold her to a guy in Rushville, Indiana. Lillian is probably still roaring around somewhere swearing at whoever owns her. I never missed her and I know she never missed me. No doubt because she really belonged, in her heart, to that guy who guzzled the tokay and had the girls who left hairpins under the front seat.


Copyright: 1972 Car and Driver

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